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My Sister's Picture by Cathy Arden (Simon & Schuster: $17.95; 239 pp.)

September 28, 1986|Mary Ellen Donovan | Donovan is co-author of "Women and Self-Esteem" (Penguin). Her older brother died of cystic fibrosis when they were children, and her younger sister died of it last year at age 23. Their mother also died prematurely, of cancer, in 1981. and

When Doren Arden, an aspiring writer, died of cancer in 1981 at age 33, her sister Cathy, another aspiring writer then nearing 30, discovered how terrible it is to lose a close family member, particularly a sibling to whom death came tragically early. This book, in which Cathy details her sister's life and her own, is testimony to her grief as well as to two important truths.

First, that a person died tragically early is not enough in itself to make his or her life story--or the life stories of the survivors--sufficient basis for a book; many people die young, and the mundane details of their lives and the lives of those close to them do not suddenly become any more interesting because of it. Second, many people lose cherished siblings early, and while that may leave them with a wealth of complex, surprising feelings, it doesn't necessarily leave them with any extraordinary insights to impart to the world.

Growing up in a New York suburb and later the city itself, the Arden sisters dreamed they would be great writers like the Brontes, a fantasy no doubt fueled by the fact that their mother happened to be in publishing, and is now president of William Morrow. Although each passed age 30 without establishing much of a literary career, over the years they both produced copious journals, poems and unpublished fiction. In this volume--significantly, the first published by either sister--Cathy provides a narrative account of their lives, which is heavily interspersed with selections from her own diaries and poetry, and is then alternated with selections from Doren's writings, and letters from Doren's college friend Candice as well.

In some of the early sections, the patchwork approach works to good effect, allowing the seeds of the love and rivalry that bound the two sisters to emerge poignantly. What emerges most strongly from the book as a whole, though, is that prior to Doren's cancer, the Arden sisters lived unexceptional lives for white, upper-middle-class women of their generation, and that Cathy has yet to find a way to transform their often commonplace experiences and perceptions into compelling reading. The diary entries and letters included here are banal, and in her lackluster narrative, Cathy too rarely pushes beyond mere transcribing into the more demanding terrain of storytelling. Moreover, the various pieces of writing don't mesh well, giving the book a confusing, crazy-quilt quality.

Cathy also displays little understanding of which elements of her tale warrant attention, and which should have been omitted, or at least compressed. In order to learn of significant events such as Doren's early marriage and divorce, her abortion and discovery of breast cancer, we're forced to slog through tedious discussions of such matters as Cathy and Doren's arguments about which was the cuter Beatle, all the various boys they ever dated or had crushes on, Doren's dejection about not getting into Radcliffe, and seemingly every emotion Cathy has ever felt. At one point, Cathy quotes verbatim the praise she once received from a college writing instructor. Later, she gives us a rundown of her jogging activities.

Yet certain important subjects get curiously short shrift. On page 172, for example, Doren, in a letter, mentions having "deep moral feelings about my Jewishness." This is the first time we're informed that the Ardens are Jewish, and nowhere is the meaning of their religion to them ever discussed.

Perhaps the gravest problem is Cathy's unfortunate tendency to view her sister's life through the haze of excessive self-involvement, which often makes "My Sister's Picture" sound more like "My Own Mirror." That causes odd oversights too. Cathy is so preoccupied with her own reactions to Doren's divorce, for example, that she never explains exactly why the marriage disintegrated.

Ironically, it is when the book finally gets to the most unusual experience of the sisters' lives--Doren's early death--that it proves most disappointingly unilluminating. Although we hear about Cathy's grief at great length, we never find out precisely how Doren died. Moreover, we discover that the Arden sisters dealt with Doren's impending death in the most conventional way: They never talked about it. Considering that Doren's death has been milked as the reason for this book and is being exploited as its hook in the marketplace, I wish they had. Cathy might then have been left with something genuinely interesting to say.

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